|©1997 George Steffanos|
WEDNESDAY, 9/21/83, MILE 1958.3 --- It was extremely warm last night, but not uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I slept fitfully. My sleep was troubled by strange dreams -- perhaps, in part, due to the weather report I had heard just before turning in. The very unseasonable warm, moist air was about to be displaced by a cold front, the leading edge of an arctic air mass. Tonight or tomorrow should bring some interesting weather to these mountains. Today being the first official day of autumn, Mother Nature seemed determined to mark the occasion with some special pyrotechnics. I understand that the lowland lake country coming up after the Bigelow Range is famous for its mud to begin with. It should be chock-full of extra fun now.
I cleared out of my motel room at 10:40, beating check-out time for a change -- by a full twenty minutes. I had been awake since 8:00, loading my pack with the fresh set of clean clothes, food, and other provisions from my mail drop and then refilling the carton with items to be shipped home. It was the heaviest return package of the entire trip: one useless pair of hiking boots, a set of dirty clothes, and a mess of surplus food. My family had thought I needed ten days' worth of food for the trail between Stratton and Monson, while I actually needed just five. I kept the ten days' supply of munchies. I had sufficient space in my backpack, and their weight will diminish soon enough. Except for during my day tripping days in Vermont and New Hampshire, I have never been able to carry enough chew food.
I walked down the street to the Post-Office and mailed the package. It cost $4.99, leaving me with only enough money for a restaurant lunch before leaving town and a few dollars in emergency funds for the trail. I hope my family can find a way to send that last money order to me in Monson.
After the P.O., I stopped at the Stratton Diner for what could very well be my final two cheeseburgers on the Appalachian Trail, some french fries, a coke, and some ice cream. I blew most of my remaining cash, but I would be just as screwed in Monson with ten dollars as I will be with four, if the money does not arrive.
My thumb was out as I walked the outskirts of the village. A few cars passed, but none stopped. After ten minutes, I paused to take a picture of another piece of small-town America along the Appalachian Trail. In the resulting shot, the only car on the road was a small red compact. Coincidentally, that turned out to be my ride. My benefactors were two attractive young German women. One hopped into the back seat, and I crammed into the front passenger seat with my backpack. We flew down the winding, narrow two-lane highway like it was the autobahn, screaming past big logging trucks on blind curves as they chattered blithely away in German. For some reason, the excellent chance that I was going to perish in a flaming wreck on Maine 27, less than two weeks' hike from Katahdin, struck my trail-warped mind as hysterical, and I could not stop laughing. They seemed to approve of my adventurous attitude.
The initial two miles of the Appalachian Trail crossed a number of low ridges and small streams as it wound through level forests towards the base of the Bigelow Range. The next one-and-a-quarter miles followed an old, abandoned logging road up the side of the ridge to a junction with the Bigelow Range Trail. It was a very reasonable climb for Maine, but that was on the old road. At the junction, the road became the Bigelow Range Trail and the Appalachian Trail turned off, straight uphill. It climbed steeply over huge boulders and tilted rock slabs for a half-mile to the ridgeline and then immediately assaulted a steep knob.
A couple of short side trails led to lookouts. Summer was attempting to linger into autumn. The air was very hazy and humid, and north-south perspectives were a complete white-out. The only real views were those east and west along the ridge itself. On very clear days Bigelow is reported to provide vistas extending to Katahdin. Oh, well. I guess I will simply have to wait a little longer for the first sight of my dream mountain.
After the first knob, the trail passed over a couple of lesser bumps before descending a very short, very steep ravine to Horns Pond, located high up on the ridgecrest. I took a forty-five minute break at one of a pair of six-man shelters situated on the shore of the pond. I read the register, filled my water bottle at the nearby spring, took some pictures and had lunch. My only regret is that I left without remembering to check out the famous experimental solar toilet about which everybody was raving in their register entries. That sucked. I had not seen a truly memorable toilet since Smarts Mountain in New Hampshire.
The Appalachian Trail climbed a very steep half-mile to the summit of the South Horn, one of a pair of open, rocky crags rising above the north shore of the pond (not surprisingly, the other is called North Horn). Angry winds were shrieking past South Horn's summit, and the haze was thickening. In the distance, a sullen line of black clouds was moving in fast from the northwestern horizon. Hello. The cold front was coming on like a runaway train.
One intense thunderstorm experienced atop a high ridgecrest (Pearis Mountain, Virginia) is plenty for any one lifetime. I put my head down and started cruising along the two miles of ridgeline between South Horn and West Peak, the main summit of Bigelow.
The front cruised faster. As I chugged along, the wind grew nastier and the sky turned as black as Mother Nature's vicious little heart. From South Horn, the ridgeline ahead had been visible as far as Avery and West Peaks, but everything was socked in by clouds before I was halfway across. Wonderful idea, that forty-five-minute break by the pond. The trail once again became very steep and rocky as I climbed towards West Peak, but, preferring not to greet the coming major storm on an exposed summit at 4150-feet in elevation, I kept flying, streaming sweat.
I negotiated the narrow, razorback summit ridge through the teeth of howling winds and scrambled recklessly back down below treeline in the narrow pass between West and Avery Peak. On the floor of Bigelow Col, I gratefully reached tonight's destination: the Myron H. Avery Memorial Lean-to. It was 5:45. A middle-aged gentleman from Pennsylvania had already arrived, apparently a while ago, as he had already eaten dinner and was rolled up in his sleeping bag.
The shelter register at Horns Pond had informed me that the spring below the col was dry, and my shelter companion confirmed that fact. I had three pints of water from a spring near the pond, but I wanted water for cooking, too. I walked down the side trail and looked around until I found the source of the spring. When running, the water issues forth from some large boulders. It was not running now, but I found plenty of clear, clean standing water in a small cave-like depression in the rocks. Not wishing to chance spending three days strapped to a toilet seat at this point of the adventure, I used that standing water only for cooking. The three pints already in my canteen were more than sufficient for my drinking water needs.
It is 8:10, as I write this, pitch black, and the wind has been absolutely going nuts. As of yet, however, no rain has fallen. I hope that it does not hold off until tomorrow and nail me on the trail. There is going to be a big storm. The only question is when.
THURSDAY, 9/22/83, MILE 1968.9 --- The clouds did not burst until late last night, but, when they did, it poured like I have not seen since Virginia. For probably the last time on this journey, I lay inside a shelter high on a mountain and experienced a raging tempest, complete with immense forks of lightning, massive explosions of thunder, roaring winds, and torrents of rain. Few of the shelter roofs under which I have slept on this hike would have stood that onslaught, but this one did fairly well. There were only two good-sized leaks to be avoided.
Morning emerged reluctantly from the murk, leaking a cold, bleak light through the persisting deluge. I glanced outside, rolled over, and slept in until 8:30. By that time, the rain had tapered off to a fine drizzle. It was chilly and dank as I made my breakfast and prepared to depart, but the storm clouds were gradually dissipating. A good, steady breeze was blowing, rapidly drying out the leaves and brush. I did not even need my rain gear when I left the shelter at 10:15. It remained overcast, but the ceiling had lifted well above the mountain.
Avery Peak sported an extensive alpine area on and around the summit and a spectacular panoramic view. On extremely clear days, Katahdin can be seen in the distance, but today was not such a day. That was disappointing, but forecasts had called for an all-day rain, so I was not complaining. The air was dry and comfortable, and the sun was even trying to burn through the overcast. I did have a breathtaking view of Flagstaff Lake, an enormous, sprawling, eleven-mile-long expanse of water in the valley below.
A new trail relocation covered the descent from Bigelow and the climb up Little Bigelow. The footway was deadly after last night's heavy rains. It had not yet become compacted from hiking traffic; pieces kept breaking off and sliding away, taking my feet with them. I took another Maine back flip on the way down. Gee, the autumn sky sure looked pretty, but what were all of those stars doing up there in the middle of the day? And why did those little tweeting birdies keep circling my head?
Actually, the relo was a fairly good trail, and should be a pleasure to walk once the ground has settled. In the sag between Bigelow and Little Bigelow, I passed the Safford Brook Trail, which had once been part of the Appalachian Trail. In the 1930's and 40's, the AT had passed through a farming valley along the banks of the Dead River, past the villages of Flagstaff and Dead River. A new route was necessitated by the fact that this particular stretch of river, the valley, those villages, and most of that portion of the old Appalachian Trail no longer exist. The Safford Brook Trail now dead-ends less than two miles from its junction with the present AT at a shore of Flagstaff Lake. This enormous man-made body of water is a storage lake for the hydroelectric dam built by a Maine power company in 1949. Elements of Appalachian Trail history now lie slumbering beneath the long, rippling swells.
Back to 1983, the ascent of Little Bigelow was gradual and the new trail well laid-out. The AT reached the ridgeline of the mountain and traversed a series of rocky knobs, several of which had open ledges. The sun had finally broken through and the day had turned clear and beautiful. The haze was gone from the air, replaced by a crisp hint of chill. An arc of mountains stretching from Bigelow to Saddleback coiled behind me. Ahead lay miles of relatively-flat lake country.
The section of trail coming down off of Little Bigelow was as hazardous as any on the entire Appalachian Trail -- a tortuous climb down huge boulders in a steep ravine. Long drops isolated each rock from the next, and the stream cascading over them was swollen from last night's rain, often obliterating the path. Negotiating this mess took a great deal of slow, painstaking effort. For once, I actually had to keep my mind on the trail, or else. Nevertheless, it took me more than a half-hour to safely cover that deadly quarter-mile.
After that, it was smooth sailing. I came to the beginning of the lowlands through which I will be traveling all of the way to Monson. On flat ground covered with wild profusions of moss and ferns and broken by the muddy brown channels of sluggish streams, the trail traveled through the dark beauty of a hemlock forest. There was plenty of deep mud and slime through which to slog, and skirt around when I could, but at least it was walking trail rather than a crawl down mossy, dripping sheer rock faces. I came to one very memorable spot. The Appalachian Trail brushed the tip of a long arm of Flagstaff Lake at a lonely gravel shore strewn with piles of bleached white driftwood resembling heaps of old bones.
Facing the lake, the drowned outlet of Bog Brook was a long, narrow finger of the bay to my left. Beyond that lay two small coves with Little Bigelow rising above them, lingering wisps of cloud clinging to its ravines. Ahead of me, a long way off, two wooded, rock-tipped peninsulas formed the mouth of my secluded bay. In the distance, a low, dome-shaped mountain rose above the far shore of the lake with small, low clouds scudding across its summit. It was a scene immense in scope, yet intimate in its solitude. A fresh breeze was blowing, sending choppy waves breaking upon the rocks at the shoreline.
For a moment, I could almost hear the whispers of generations living and toiling to make a life for themselves in a once-vibrant valley which now lay entombed beneath the cold blue waters. For a moment, I could almost touch something -- something lovely and sad. It was a light for which I have no name, an intangible for which I have been groping since this quest began, something I have indeed been seeking my entire life. A light which my wandering soul has come to embody in the word Katahdin.
Beauty does not diminish in sadness. It rises to a heartbreaking intensity, like a song. The world has forever lost much that was fair and yet much endures. Much had been lost in my life, yet enough spirit survived to carry me, against all odds, through turbulent storms to this peaceful shore on the borderland of the realization of hopeless dreams.
The light quickly fled. I lingered, trying to grasp it, but that just made it slip away all the more rapidly. The voices faded, too, leaving behind the songs of wind through trees and waters murmuring over the beach of stones. The valley and all that was in it were dead -- the waters took them long ago. Autumn was beginning to touch the rustling leaves. A wide blaze of red flared high up on the right side of the distant dome-shaped mountain. The long summer of my quest was dieing, too.
I arrived at tonight's home at 5:15. It was less than a tenth-mile beyond the Appalachian Trail crossing of Long Falls Dam Road, a lonesome stretch of pavement along which the nearest village was twenty miles away.
Jerome Brook Lean-to was built in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The ensuing forty-five years had not been kind. In spite of the relative seclusion, the place has the used-up, run-down look of most shelters easily accessible by car. Its major problems is the condition of its "baseball bat" floor. When such constructions, unique to the older shelters in Maine, are in good shape, I find them rather comfortable. The narrow, rounded logs allow you to easily shift the pressure points on which you are lying. These are all warped and tilted out of line, creating an interesting variation of a medieval torture device for those who attempt to sleep on them. In short, the place is a pit, but, f___ it, it is home for tonight.
I came less than eleven miles today, but there is no reason to go further. Sixteen miles ahead lies the Kennebec River -- the toughest and most hazardous water ford on the Appalachian Trail. It is a major obstacle which can only be waded in the early morning, before the hydroelectric dams upstream release their backup to generate the day's electricity and the river waters rise to unfordable levels. I cannot go further than that river bank tomorrow, even if I walk on another five miles or so today, so I may as well stay in a shelter tonight. Tomorrow, I will hike to within striking distance of the ford, which I will cross early the following morning.
Actually, there are ways of arranging for a boat to ferry a backpacker across the river. That is the sane and sensible thing to do. If you have read the rest of this story, you do not need me to tell you what my choice is.
LATE NIGHT NOTE: I am not alone in this shelter. An animal has joined me: a huge, fat, potbellied white rabbit with an attitude. Now, I have seen everything. Good night.
FRIDAY, 9/23/83, MILE 1981.9 --- I would imagine that there are few places on Earth where a person can look up from a sleeping bag into the sedate stare of a wild white rabbit sitting a few feet away, untroubled by the presence of a human. "What's up, Doc?" Welcome to the Appalachian Trail, where anything can happen. . . so it does.
A 1000-foot climb began today's hike. The trail crossed the wooded 2240-foot summit of Roundtop Mountain, where a couple of tiny peepholes through the trees looked out across the lake country. Descending back to the lowlands, it touched briefly the southwest edge of West Carry Pond and skirted the southern shore for a mile-and-a-half. I followed or crossed a number of very old logging roads.
This morning's portion of lake country was a remote, forested region of enormous ponds, wide marshlands, and low ridges. From the southeast corner of West Carry Pond, the Appalachian Trail turned onto an old Indian portage path between the ponds now known as the Arnold Expedition Trail. The Carry Ponds, the Dead River, and this historic trail were all part of the route utilized by Colonel Benedict Arnold and his Colonial troops on their way to attack Quebec during the Revolutionary War.
The AT followed the Arnold Trail for almost two miles. It crossed a flat, very boggy area surrounding the inlet stream for Middle Carry Pond, but stayed well to the north and out of sight of the pond itself. Just before the stream, the AT left the Arnold Trail and made its way to the northwest shore of East Carry Pond, with which it retained contact for a half-mile. The Carry Ponds region was a pretty country of rocky shores, dense woodlands, and cedar swamps, but the footway was difficult. I slogged through acres of deep, black slime and struggled under, over, and around countless blowdowns. Only the flat, gentle terrain made my going relatively easy. I passed a tidy little sand beach on the shore of East Carry Pond which almost tempted me to stop for a quick dip, but the coolness of the day and the guidebook's warning to "watch out for big mother leeches" tended to discourage such thoughts.
A mile-and a-half past East Carry Pond, I crossed a narrow strip of gravel, typical of recent AT road crossings in that the nearest town was eighteen miles away along a very sparsely-traveled way. The motto of the Appalachian Trail in Maine seems to be "you're on your own." It gives backpacking through this state a special flavor. I like it.
I was rained upon crossing Bates Ridge two-and-a-half miles later. The ridge was a low, unassuming fold in the land, whose main interest to me was that its sloping ground allowed water to run off, making it the driest section of footway I walked all day. Unfortunately, the rain took care of that. It did not last long, but I was forced to leave my rain gear on for the rest of the day. The path was badly overgrown, and the underbrush remained soggy long after the sky had cleared. As a matter of fact, I was relatively dry when the rain abated and the sun returned, but I was soaked clear-through within minutes from squeezing through wet branches and bushes infringing upon the trail.
As I mentioned yesterday, sixteen miles was my limit of travel today. At that point, I would reach the west bank of the Kennebec River, a stream which must be forded early in the morning. Knowing that, I lingered at Jerome Brook Lean-to until 8:15 this morning, and took my time all day. Nevertheless, I arrived at Pierce Pond Lean-to at 2:30, having already completed thirteen of those miles. I had intended to hike the remaining three miles to the river and camp beside its bank, but I fell in love with Pierce Pond and decided to pass the night upon its shore.
The shelter sits a few feet away from the pond's southern shore in a beautiful forest of shaggy cedars with a nice spattering of spruce and pine. From inside, an unobstructed view of what appears to be a fair-sized pond is in reality a glimpse of a small offshoot of one of the enormous bodies of water typical of western Maine. A large, rocky wooded island conceals the remainder of the lake. Substantial ridges rise from the low country along the western shore. Loons and golden flecks of sunlight are skimming across the rippling waters.
A quarter-mile side trail connects Pierce Pond Lean-to with Carrying Place Camps, a privately-run operation offering meals and lodging in rustic cabins to hunters, fishermen, and hikers. [Note: In northern New England terminology, A cabin is called a camp. Thus, the name means Carrying Place Cabins.] Among the Appalachian Trail hiking community, the place is famous for large, inexpensive, and delicious trail breakfasts.
The guidebook advised all northbound hikers planning to ford the Kennebec to stop by the camps and inquire about the condition of the river before attempting to cross. This led to a fairly humorous conversation with the proprietor, who spoke with some irritation towards the M.A.T.C. for putting that in the guidebook. He told me that, the Kennebec being three miles from the cabins, he had no more idea of its present condition than I did. We laughed, and he passed on to me some information that made the stop worthwhile, anyway.
He said that the river level has generally been very low recently, but a hiker must wade it before 10:30-11:00 A.M., when the water released from the upstream spillways has made it down to the ford. Within five or ten minutes, the river would rise from thigh-deep to more than six feet in depth. I had heard that one should cross before 9:00 A.M.; that extra hour-and-a-half leeway gave me on opportunity to stay at Pierce Pond Shelter and still have time to hike the final three miles to the river early enough for a safe crossing.
I am even considering stopping at the camps tomorrow morning for the trail breakfast. It is kind of hard for a thru-hiker to resist a $4.50 breakfast of juice, coffee, two eggs, three sausages, and twelve pancakes when he is about to attempt an autumn fording of a major northern New England river. The one sticky point is that they do not begin serving until 7:30. That should still leave me plenty of time to reach the Kennebec and make the crossing, but I don't know if I can wait that long. I am itching to get that crossing over with. It is the last great obstacle separating me from my mountain -- the final place at which there is a considerable risk of disaster aborting my mission just when the goal is so close. Additionally, the three short days which I have hiked in order to position myself for an early morning crossing have strained my patience to the breaking point. The magnetic pull of Katahdin is once again consuming my soul.
NIGHT --- Temporarily placing my frustration on hold, I have spent the past several hours,watching daylight slowly ebb away over Pierce Pond. As night began to fall and the sky took on a deepening dark blue, loons began to call out over the still waters. It is an eerie cry, reminiscent of insane laughter. Once heard, it cannot easily be forgotten.
Night has now fallen without an electric light in sight to challenge the majestic blaze of the universe above. Shooting stars are raining down like New Years Eve tinsel confetti. A lone coyote is singing out from the surrounding ridges, mournful howls mingling with the haunting laughter of the loons. This place is Maine. I feel I have truly found the magical country of two thousand miles of daydreams. I would walk thousands more miles through the worst the trail had to offer to be here once again on a night such as this.
The way to the light leads through darkness. The bleakest chapters of this adventure are now some of the most precious to me. Struggling up from the abyss sends one soaring to the loftiest heights. The blacker the tunnel, the more dazzling the subsequent emergence.
Tonight, beneath the stars, I have found my intangible something again at Pierce Pond. I touched it briefly many times on this long trail -- floating in the morning mists of a mountain pass in Georgia, a glimmering of gold and silver in a high pasture in Virginia. I brushed up against it once ascending into a golden cloud on Mount Washington, and, strangely enough, again in the swirling, dusky chaos above. It shone most brightly in my desperate daydreams of Katahdin.
The ethereal light I felt at a gravel lakeshore two days ago surrounds this place tonight. It is transient and ungraspable like a soap bubble shimmering with rainbows in the sun, but it is here. Thanks to luck and a great deal of hard work, so am I.
I think I may very well enjoy that breakfast tomorrow, because I will most likely stay up late tonight listening to the loons and the coyotes, the wind through the treetops, and the gentle lapping of the waters of the pond against the shore. I feel no great urge to make my decision now. I am just going to kick back and relax.
SATURDAY, 9/24/83, MIL hard at times, but always rewarding. It has been much harder and a great deal more rewarding than I had ever imagined when I dreamed up this little adventure in those dark days of self-loathing last spring. Now, it's almost over.
I did stay up very late last night, savoring the atmosphere of Pierce Pond, but I still awoke this morning at around 6:00. It did not matter. I did not need sleep today. I was running on buckets of adrenaline.
I lay around in my sleeping bag for more than an hour, having decided not to miss the breakfast at Carrying Place Camps. What finally decided me was remembering from my reading the historical significance of these places on the Appalachian Trail. During its early years, the trail in northern Maine passed a set of these camps virtually every day. They were vital to early thru-hikers. Shelters were few, and lightweight backpacking tents had yet to be invented. Most have been closed down and many others left behind by trail relocations. This is one of only three which the AT still passes. The other two, further north on the trail, are no longer in operation. One has been abandoned and the other is now a private operation, closed to hikers. Thus, this was my one real shot at tasting a small sample of this major chapter of Appalachian Trail history.
I arrived at the dining cabin at 7:35, just after they had opened. Money was growing short, so I was forced to get by on the $3.50 #1 Breakfast: twelve pancakes, three sausages, juice, and unlimited coffee. Oh, well. Coffee mugs were huge, and you helped yourself from a large, antique-looking cast-iron pot which sat warming on an old potbellied wood stove. The cook dished out the pancakes three at a time, and tons of butter and syrup were set out on the tables. A cardiologist would have run screaming for the door.
It was more than an excellent meal -- it was an excellent experience, contributing to my already warm memories of Pierce Pond. The atmosphere of the place was the flavor of an earlier time. One of the most striking features of the Appalachian Trail is the not-infrequent sensations of stepping through a temporal warp. I finished my meal and got up, ready to head out and "kilt me a bar." It was great to have a large, hot meal in my stomach as I prepared to face the icy waters. The proprietor filled me in on the exact spot where the river should be forded and pointed out the easiest route to that spot on the map. I returned to the shelter to grab my backpack and hit the trail at 8:00. The river was waiting.
The Appalachian Trail shadowed the lakeside northeastward for a brief while before crossing its wide outlet stream on a rough rock-and-log dam and following the left bank downstream past a glittering series of shallow cascades. It then descended a long, gentle slope through the forest, threading a path through a network of narrow woods roads. A wide, grassy gravel road brought me to the river bank. By 9:00, I was making my way along the rocky shore towards a point adjacent to the gravel bars and rapids which marked the shallowest part of the river. Loose piles of rounded stones underfoot expanded the final two hundred yards into a ten-minute scramble.
The most common method of wading the hundred-yard-wide river is to remove socks and hiking boots and cross in running shoes, retaining dry footwear for hiking upon reaching the far shore. My boots were gone; running shoes were all I had. On the rocky river bed, bare feet was not an option. Stripping off my socks and running shoes, I removed the shoes' insoles and put them back on. At least my socks would be dry.
From the bank, it all looked so peaceful. Golden sun-drops swirled innocently over foam-flecked blue and soft breezes stirred the pines. The initial fifteen or twenty yards to the gravel bar was almost anticlimactic. The current was strong, but the water was barely ankle-deep. Although frigid, it would be tolerable so long as I could manage to keep it from reaching. . . shall we say. . . no higher than my upper thighs. I had picked up a staff of driftwood along the river bank to use as a prop against the current, but had hardly needed it crossing that first set of rapids. I took a brief break on the gravel bar, the sun feeling nice on my numbed feet.
About halfway across, the going grew tougher. Fragments of gravel washed inside my shoes by the stream were digging into my feet. The river was above my knees and the current remained strong and relentless. The bed was a shifting mass of smooth, round, slime-coated stones which tended to roll beneath my feet as the waters endeavored to flip me over. I almost went under a couple of times with all my possessions. I slowed to dig my feet down several inches into the piled-up rocks with each step for a little support as I inched toward the east bank.
By the time I worked my way to within twenty yards from shore, I was fading. I gave up any attempt at following the shallows and made a bee-line for land, just wanting to get it over with. Fortunately, the water never rose above mid-thigh (whew!). The bed sloped sharply upward for the last five yards. I had conquered the Kennebec.
I sat down by the shore. Warm rays of sunshine offset the crisp autumn air. As feeling crept back into my legs, initial relief transformed into a total elation which lasted the entire day. Looking northeastward towards a yet unseen mountain, I laughed and whispered, "You're mine." Several minutes later, I donned my socks and reassembled my running shoes for the first Appalachian Trail roadwalk in Maine.
Immediately after the river, the road passed through Caratunk, a tiny village on a small byway just off of a remote riverside stretch of US 201. I stopped at the Post Office to jot off a quick letter and mail it home. The little grocery store next to the P.O. had closed down some time ago, so I quickly hit the road again. It was 10:20.
Crossing that river took twenty-five minutes -- probably the slowest hundred yards of my entire hike, but quick and easy for that stretch. The air was cool and the sun was warm -- a perfect autumn day. I could not wipe an idiotic smile from my face and kept bursting into deranged laughter for no apparent reason while walking along -- Charles Manson hikes the Appalachian Trail. Every choice I had made since deciding to stay at Pierce Pond last night had been perfect. I was on a roll.
It did not even blow my mood when I discovered that the trail club had included in the guidebook a new relocation which had not as yet been completed. I wasted almost an hour, walking two extra miles, in an attempt to locate the spot at which the new trail left the road. I finally conceded that the trail did not yet exist when it dawned on me that the M.A.T.C. would have painted over the blazes along that road once they rerouted the AT into the woods. Normally, this experience would have ticked me off, but I was feeling too happy to sulk -- much.
There were over five miles of roadwalk from Caratunk to the Pleasant Pond Lean-to. Three of those miles will be eliminated when they get around to finishing the relo. The road was paved for most of the distance, becoming gravel, and then unimproved gravel by the time I had reached the shelter. In spite of my setback with the relo-that-wasn't, I was there by 1:00. I spent a half-hour munching and reading the register, leaving perhaps the least sardonic and most Pollyanna-ish entry of my entire hike. I realized I had passed the 13/14-point of the Appalachian Trail just after crossing the river. I like playing with those little fractions of mine. I was one happy little camper.
The climb up Pleasant Pond Mountain from the shelter was the worst section of trail I had hiked in a while, but nothing could bring me down today. I just plugged on up and took the side trail to the open summit and a sweeping 360-degree view. I could not stand in one spot and take it all in, but I could see for miles in every direction as I circled the flat, scrubby plateau. I peered intently northeastward for a glimpse of Katahdin, but could not pick it out. Perhaps atop the next mountain.
After descending from the summit, the Appalachian Trail followed more roads. The first was a rough gravel logging track through a forest just beginning to turn colors. The second was an improved gravel road which followed a portion of Moxie Pond's long shore for two miles, past occasional summer cabins. The southern extension of the pond was a lovely little body of water called Joes Hole, connected to the main body by a narrow neck of water and otherwise surrounded by precipitous cliffs. This roadwalk -- one of the most scenic on the entire AT -- ended just past Joes Hole, at a point where the Appalachian Trail turned into the woods and crossed the outlet stream from the pond.
Crossing Baker Stream was a trip. A two-cable footbridge was nearby, but I could not negotiate it wearing my heavy backpack. The upper cable was in a direct line with the lower cable, forcing me to lean back a great deal as I inched along. After twenty-five feet, my hands were already blistering badly. Even while my feet were becoming rock-hard and toughened this summer, my hands were growing soft from a lack of hard work. I was forced to turn around and return to my starting point. I followed the bank for a short distance downstream to the point at which the Appalachian Trail forded the stream over some rocks.
The water was very high, and many of the rocks along the ford were submerged. I sat down and removed my socks and insoles before executing a miniature sequel of my earlier Kennebec River crossing. A mile later, I arrived at Joes Hole Brook Lean-to, having covered an eventful seventeen miles (not to mention my two-mile detour on the first roadwalk and the side trip up Pleasant Pond Mountain), my biggest day since Vermont. It was almost 5:30, and I figured I had done enough for one day.
In a large, swampy, wooded area in front of the shelter, bears have been spotted. It is now 9:00 P.M., and unfortunately, it is dark. If it wasn't, I would be seeing either my second moose or my first bear of the hike, because something very large is crashing around just outside the shelter. I have not been able to catch it in my flashlight beam. It seems to have gone, now, but perhaps it will return. I am going to try to be awake tomorrow at first light. Finally seeing a bear on the Appalachian Trail would make what has been a great past couple of days perfect.
I have another shelter all to myself tonight. Since I resumed backpacking from Gorham, I have only shared two shelters with a grand total of three people -- and one was on my second night out. It seems I have picked a good time to travel through Maine.
I passed the 14/15-point of the Appalachian Trail this evening, marking the first time I have tallied two of those points in one day. Just before this shelter, I passed the halfway point of the state of Maine. It was, as I have said, an eventful day.
SUNDAY, 9/25/83, MILE 2020.1 --- MONSON --- Indian summer in central Maine. The weather is perfect: fairly warm, sunny days followed by frosty nights. The insects of summer have, for the most part, died off for the year. On the trail up to Moxie Bald Mountain from the shelter this morning, I finally crossed the 2000-mile threshold. That is a staggering distance: 2000 miles. It still had not really sunk in.
The guidebook was almost useless once again this morning, describing more relocations which have yet to be completed. The guidebook and map showed the Appalachian Trail going right over Moxie Bald Mountain, but, at present, the summit is still off of the AT on a half-mile side trail. It was worth the trip. The views from the summit were the best I had seen since Bigelow, especially those from the unlocked firetower. I saw many of the mountains which I had climbed, including Bigelow and Sugarloaf. I also saw the two major ranges remaining between myself and Katahdin: Barren-Chairback and Whitecap. Almost invisible in the misty distance, I glimpsed a lone mountain which may or may not have been Katahdin. I wished I could have been sure. Maybe next mountaintop.
I became briefly lost while returning down the side trail to the AT. I spent more than a half-hour crashing stubbornly around through the dense shrub growth before having the sense to return to the firetower, which was visible from any point along the crest, and try again. It was past 10:30 when I regained the AT, and I still had almost eighteen miles of hiking before reaching Monson tonight. I needed to get moving.
At the base of the mountain, I made a brief stop at Moxie Bald Lean-to in order to check out Bald Mountain Pond: an enormous lake similar to Moxie Pond and Pleasant Pond, but much more primitive in setting, lacking the gravel roads and summer cabins which lined the shores of those two other beautiful lakes. From the shelter, the Appalachian Trail followed an assortment of old woods roads and some gravel logging roads above the northwest shore of the pond and along Bald Mountain Stream for seven miles to Breakneck Ridge (a fitting name for a feature over which the AT in Maine passes). The scenery past the pond was pretty, but unspectacular -- definitely connecting trail. I reached Breakneck Ridge Lean-to at 2:45, and spent fifteen minutes reading the register and making my own entry. It was time for a non-stop nine-mile push to Monson.
After this shelter the Appalachian Trail-passed by old, overgrown farm fields, following wide, grassy roads for two-and-a-half miles before coming out onto a paved road. I trod pavement for the next couple of miles, passing through the center of another tiny little village known as Blanchard. Just west of the village on this roadwalk, I saw my second and third moose of this hike: a male and a female making goo-goo eyes at each other in another overgrown field adjacent to the road. Ah, September in Maine, when a young moose's fancies turn to amore.
Quickly leaving the young folks alone, I crossed the Piscataquis River (on a truly effete automobile bridge, no less) and made my way through the endless excitement that is Blanchard. Downtown Blanchard lacked even a post office or a gas station; it was basically a small cluster of houses. I turned left onto another paved road, which the Appalachian Trail followed north out of town. Finally, the AT left the paved roads behind and followed a rocky, slimy, muddy, badly-gullied old tote road east for three miles, passing through recently-logged forests and more abandoned farms. This stretch ended on a paved road which followed the shore of huge Lake Hebron for the final couple of miles into Monson. Numerous summer homes and cabins lined the lakeshore. It was definitely not the usual Maine wilderness. Just as darkness began to fall, I came to Shaw's Boarding House, directly on the Appalachian Trail roadwalk. It was a moment of truth.
I did not have enough money to pay for my lodgings tonight. I had to ask Mr. Shaw if he would put me up and wait to get paid until the Post Office opened in the morning. I had worried about this moment the entire long, weary day. Obviously, Mr. Shaw did not know me from Adam. I had no idea of what type of reception I would get. He just smiled and told me that everybody who stayed at his place paid when they left. There was no problem.
This is a friendly old place with a nice atmosphere. Keith Shaw is an affable, energetic, tireless, driven Yankee fighting relentlessly for the hiker business. It seems that American Youth Hostels, a national chain, has opened a competing establishment in this tiny little village. Mr. Shaw does not like it and he is fighting back. The prices are great and the meals are served all-you-can-eat (so I did).
Here come the fractions: I passed the 15/16, 16/17, and 17/18 points of the Appalachian Trail today, as well as the 2000-mile mark. It was my first twenty-miler since Vermont, my first twenty-miler with a full backpack since Connecticut, and, at twenty-one miles, my longest day since New York.
Monson is my last trail town on the AT. The supplies which I carry out tomorrow will take me to Katahdin (although I will pass one small store just prior to entering Baxter State Park). Behind me now is the Kennebec River ford -- the Red Sea crossing of the Appalachian Trail. Just ahead lies the Promised Land: the hundred-mile wilderness of which I have dreamt many times during the course of my longest summer. At some point during the next few days, I will finally see the mountain of my desperate daydreams and know it for sure. You're mine.
118.4 miles to go.
|©1997 George Steffanos
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